Clifton King

Rookie (December 24,1943 / Long Beach, California)

Neighborhood Boys

— for Jimmy, Brian and Richard

There were four of us: good Catholic boys.
Our mothers sent us to church each Sunday
to sit in polished oak pews, to kneel and stand,
repeat prayers on cue, like performing some ancient
pagan ritual. They sent us to church to confess
our sins, say penance and receive the holy host
of communion. But, because we were boys,
we played football on the church lawn instead.

There were four of us: good Catholic boys.
Then, Jimmy lost his soul to a devil named cocaine.
Sister Mary Anne said Jesus would save our souls
—if only we’d ask. Jimmy never did
as far as I know. We were just boys
and played football on the church lawn instead.

We never saw Jimmy again. Years later
I read his name in the paper: arrested
during a liquor store robbery, the clerk shot
and killed. Jimmy didn’t pull the trigger. Claimed
he didn’t even know his cohort had a gun.
The Judge didn’t care. The law was clear.

There were four of us: good Catholic boys
who played football on the church lawn,
growing into men when one night Brian
drove his van into a concrete bridge on PCH.
The Highway Patrol said it shouldn’t have happened,
traffic was light, the sky clear, the road dry.
Yet, Brian died that night, none of us sure why.

Over the years I stayed in touch with Richard.
He made it back from Vietnam, but brought
the demons with him. His wife left, took the kids,
went to live with her parents in Michigan.
It seems to me he deserved better.
It seems to me they all deserved better.

I was in the old neighborhood the other day,
stopped by the church. The lawn is gone, paved over
for more parking. Inside, a line of sinners waiting
near the confessional. A few of the forgiven
scattered among the pews, heads bowed in silent prayer.
I know no good can come from second-guessing life,
but I’ve always wondered what might have been
if we had—

the truth is—there were four of us: good Catholic boys
who played football on the church lawn instead.

Submitted: Thursday, July 08, 2010

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